The ‘gatekeepers’ are gone. What is the media’s role now?

opinion September 08, 2017 01:00

By Suthichai Yoon
The Nation

In the new digital age in which everyone can be a reporter, is the gatekeeper role of the traditional media gone forever? Can mainstream media take on social media?



These two pressing issues were raised earlier this week in Singapore, at a conference organised by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) foundation, a German think-tank for social progress.

There should be little doubt that the floodgates have be thrown open. 

Replacing them now are millions of unmarked doors of confusing colours and signs. The watchdogs have disappeared, some shot dead, others caged or severely weakened by lack of sustenance and falling revenue.

Also, the old mass media have shattered into fragments. Segmentation is now the name of the game.

But we can’t afford to despair. Media organisations have to reinvent ourselves if we don’t want to be dismissed as irrelevant.

I don’t believe you can draw a line between traditional media and social media. In fact, for traditional media to survive and prosper, they must fully embrace their “social” cousin in every aspect. Whether we like it or not, we have all become digital media practitioners.

Because of that, the role of responsible media professionals becomes even more important.

We may not be gatekeepers. But if we restore public trust, we can still play the role of mirror for society, shedding light where there is darkness, pursuing vital stories that those in power try to hide from the public.

For today’s journalists to live up to society’s expectations, every reporter will have to plunge right into social media. Those in the profession must give high priority to training a new generation of journalists in how to go back to basics: double check all facts, ask difficult questions, keep a critical mind and maintain a healthy pursuit of long-form journalism to go with short, lively and meaningful posts in all social media platforms.

It is also important that digital journalists resist the temptation to pursue clicks or likes at all cost. In the end, it’s quality journalism that will last. “Go deep into subjects that matter, dig into what you know best”, is the new mantra. 

We are stuck right in the midst of the Age of Mistrust, commonly known as the post-truth era. We all feel better connected but less well informed. Our problem is too much information, not too little. Being more in touch has reduced our ability to reach out and “touch” people. Distrust begins here.

The gift of speech may still be there, but the art of communication has been lost.

Now that everyone can be a reporter, it is even more important that we have professional journalists who check rumours, verify facts and stay alert for fake news. We have to become more competent lie-detectors.

Fake news comes in many forms, some innocent mistakes, others more deliberate. Our greatest enemy is the plotters who manufacture lies to benefit vested interests.

At the same time, we need to gain a deeper understanding of machine-learning and artificial intelligence (AI). These new tech tools may be able to produce weather reports or sports stories, but AI cannot be the arbiter of morality and trust. In that sense, responsible and competent professional journalists become even more important in the digital-age news deluge. 

Big data and AI are basically smart tools, but the art of effective communication still rests with well-trained professionals who can separate facts from empty bluster, as identified by British journalist James Ball in his new book “Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World”.

It has never been easier to spread fake news and propaganda – and never more important to be able to sort the facts from the “bullshit”. 

The new mission of all responsible journalists is to jump right into social media, AI and big data to fight the flow of fakery.

Emily Bell, director of Tow Center for Digital Journalism, argued that social media and search engines also need quality content to counter fake news, extreme content and misinformation. She suggested that instead of fighting over news initiatives, the handful of leading technology companies could each donate $1 billion to create a new type of engine for independent journalism.

I doubt Google or Facebook would respond positively to the proposal. But unless we get serious about finding a real solution for professional journalism in this new world dominated by “bullshit”, there is little hope of retaining a decent, vibrant society for the next generation.

In a nutshell, while we cannot deny the severe impact of technology on media, the role of professional journalists remains crucial to society. It doesn’t matter what platform people use to consume quality journalism – the ability to separate facts from falsehoods, and the strong determination to go to the roots of an issue, remain the touchstones that society demands from all of us who call ourselves media practitioners, communicators or digital journalists.

The battle will be fierce. The task will be demanding. But our alternative is permitting breakdown of the basic foundation of democracy and the social fabric.

The fight will require joint, determined efforts on all fronts. The gatekeepers must re-invent themselves in a major transformation. The mission is to become full-time “bullshit”-fighters, and join forces with academics, big data specialists and activists to launch a do-or-die war against lies, half-truths and disinformation that have invaded social media on an unprecedented and frightening scale.